Absence makes the heart grow fonder, up against, out of sight, out of mind, love, as a concept, has been one of the most written about things in human history. From the onset of language, both verbal and written, we’ve had concepts for ‘like’, for ‘love’, slowly gathering meanings and accumulating semantic nuances. It can shift from culture to culture (witness the French aimer versus adorer) and can preoccupy one culture much more than another – whilst Boccaccio was cranking out the Filostrato (c.1340) with a straight face, Chaucer’s muddied influences and psychological styling in the hotpot of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin confluences produced his benchmark Troilus and Crysede just half a century later. We can go from Browning’s rather sick ‘Porphyria’s Lover’: ‘That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good: I found / A thing to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around, /And strangled her’ to the earnest and heartfelt lament of Buckley in ‘Hallelujah’ (1994) (cf. Cohen), right to the cloying declarations of love that saturate courtly poetry right through Elizabethan times. That’s just from a US-England analysis; it leaves the rest of the world to explore. It’s a long way from the lufian of the Anglo-Saxon battle collective for their lord to the idiosyncratic and unit of one love that Ronan Keating expresses for his latest syrupy lover in his songs.
Suffice to say love has proved an impossible concept to pin down, for the greatest it has been insurmountable and for the trivial is has proved overwhelming. As we approach Valentine’s Day then, where should we start, what should we take with us, and what should we discard? What of the supposed compassion fatigue that the modern media circus has instilled in the Western world with its new found multimedia spectatorship of suffering? What of the emergent statistics of a nation of singletons, of which over a third of adults live alone – truly alone – in houses and flats that contain just them? What of the love of the earth – social responsibility channelled and prismatic through a lens of heartfelt engagement, with the coming oil shortages and sure-to-ensue wars of the next 50 years, both traditional, chemical and nuclear? How far the ramifications of the Buckleyite lament of love being a way to ‘shoot someone who outdrew you’? It’s worth noting that the literary giants of the British novel, Dickens, Hardy, Woolf et al never found ways of reconciling ‘love’ – to Hardy it was a painful nervous exercise, a kind of happy-sad accident of evolution. Dickens was touchy and nervy too, allowing a rare moment of his version of love at the end of Little Dorrit: it still doesn’t sit quite right. Woolf was all over the place, unable to place love within her free association of the sense and the sensibility. Eliot cited love as the intolerable shirt of flame and for the majority, that’s what I’d advise us to go with. Words that express the inexpressible, the ‘can’t live with, can’t live without’ and damning and damnable, the way that it gets you just there and yet, it will always serve up longing and tears with its laughs and touching, serve up CS gas attacks and ricin with its simple hugs and embraces. ‘Love/Love will tear us apart/again’ rings the chorus that’s passed now into the unconscious social collective memory.
Love is the classic double-edged sword that won’t let the bearer swing as they like, calibrated off centre and not even offering the one who wields it the protection they’d like. It melts to nothing, from steel to embers, in the middle of the battle, and extends from the ruined handle of a previous blade, in the lulls, in the pauses, in the calms. It is canon, an anomaly, a set-text, a wildcard, a tool, a saviour, a device, it is labour. It is the thing that is no such thing, the thing that is inexpressible, that is no thing at all, but that can, at its zenith, be every single thing.
[to be published in the February edition of InPrint, the magazine of the Society of Young Publishers]